|Oct/Nov 2008 Nonfiction|
San Francisco, 1997
Most gastronomic ventures are doomed from the start. Yet some prevail against the odds, for much longer than they deserve to, like the humans that run them.
Sal Monti opened the Coconut Grove Jazz Supper Club on St Patrick's Day 1995, at 1415 Van Ness at the foot of Austin Alley. It was a palm filled, $3 million replica of the 1930s original in Los Angeles. Sal, six-four, 250 pounds, apprenticed with the Oregon Mob and made his fortune on a raft of peep and porn parlors between Market Street and North Beach. His late night strip clubs on Broadway housed lucrative, clandestine pounding rooms upstairs. Sal wanted to run one legit business where the city's diamond necks would come for a big night out, to dine, dance and be seen. Any hobo outside that dared to hustle a high heel got Sal's cell in their head, back when phones were still brick size.
The merchant of vice created a top venue to wash his reputation and money. Tom Jones, the opening night act, left behind a stage full of underwear. Clark and Darden shadow-smooched, post OJ. For a year, the socialites and gibbonry patronized, Mayors Jordan and Brown came schmoozing with celebs 'n' plebs. Jean-Marc, the Maitre d', invited George Shearing to join him at the bar after his wondrous show. Fortunately, the pianist couldn't see the owner showing his appreciation on the mezzanine above him, Big Sal being blown by an unknown female. Diners' palettes didn't discern the cooks were wired on everything from mushrooms to meth. Dancers were oblivious to servers coked to the gills. The chef was never sober, yet Sal's dream survived.
It was difficult to nibble an appetizer there without dropping a bill. Big bands want big checks. The help began siphoning and threatening margins. As fast as Sal could fist and fire them, others sprung leaks. He was having trouble breaking even in an establishment that did not rent C & B holes by the half hour. After eighteen manic months, he managed to sell a bankrupt Coco G to Davros, the lean and groomed Polish chess champion. Sal burned as many people as he could on the way out, everyone between the bank and dishwasher got royally bent over.
Davros financed the club's purchase with a loan secured against his James Bond glass castle on Twin Peaks. Initial injections of cash and acumen turned the venue solvent. Patrons and staff shared the belief that the Coconut Grove would now thrive. Even the club's horrid parking situation improved when the ingenious valets stole a city street, Austin Alley between Van Ness and Franklin.
On the far side of Austin Alley, a city block had been leveled as part of a three-year project to construct a new Methodist, luxury retirement home. Million dollar-leased studios were being built for a managed care residence. The corporate mission was to drain residents' savings before they took the last elevator down to the building's basement morgue; a microcosm of the national das kapital ethos.
Construction crews spent the final hour of each work day imbibing a pickup-full of beer. They had paid-up-permits to use Austin Alley from 7 a.m. till 4 p.m., Monday to Friday. The club's valets, using stolen city "Tow-Away" signage, extended this permission to cover 24/7/365. Occasionally an odd police or parking officer would stumble on the anomaly; i.e. "No parking" signs in an alley crammed with vehicles. Dinner and show for two quelled enforcement inquiries. The commandeered street came with its own twenty-four hour security. Coco G's kitchen fed three homeless personnel who had a ramshackle enclave several yards uphill from the side delivery entrance.
Davros kept the core attractions of fine dining, big bands, and jazz till 10 p.m., but added an extra revenue stream by inviting promoters to throw parties in the 10 till 2 a.m. slot. Late night sessions evolved into raves for specific ethnic groups, especially Russians, Greeks, Euro trash, and (East) Indians. The club had a Jekyll and Hyde quality—sophisticated set precedes cocktailing E heads. Function overlaps upset the jazz aficionados; what kind of a club invites such a classless mob to the sax shrine?
After the diners departed at ten, Jean-Marc erected cash bars on all four sides of the dance floor. Good nights brought in $30,000, much needed with monthly rent at $20,000. It was a top-down shakedown. The piles of cash in the office looked like a model of Manhattan. Who noticed if a few floors vanished?
People on uppers drink a lot when it's dark and hot. The staff did more drugs than the patrons. They could afford to; a dozen servers siphoned an easy G each on good nights. The druggery and greed escalated unchecked without Sal around to dent skulls. Jean-Marc fired gross offenders, but he and the wrinkled management were too busy upstairs screwing ripe new hires and snorting lines off genitals. Coconut Grove was like a pirated cruise ship.
It continued like that for a year, until the buccaneers broke the bank again. The good musicians found gigs where the checks didn't bounce. Diners didn't return—too many gastro-disasters were smoking out of the kitchen. Fickle promoters were finding new flavors of the month south of Market. The once sober chess champion began staggering nightly from his own top shelf. The end was a volcano of debt, a long foreseen stink. It was a grandiose mystery how Coco G had lasted this long.
The only profitable aspect to the supper club was the weekend wedding functions. Such events could gross $40,000, and the club typically received a $20,000 advance, a security against giltings. The Grove had been booked by La Famiglia Calabrese di Calabria. This would be a special reception because the bride and groom had fond memories of the original 1930s Coconut Grove in LA. Jean-Marc promised them that no detail would be overlooked for the newlyweds, both in their seventies.
It was a sunny Saturday when a thirty-year-old, hung-over Dervish showed up for his 1 p.m. valet shift. He unchained his silver podium and wheeled out the metal box for storing car keys. Chest high, it also served as a lectern to hector pandlers (pan handlers), greet guests, and acted as an outdoor bar to serve valets, doormen, and wait staff taking a break. Today he was alone and wondered if he was too early. He was sporting a bright blue vest and black pants torn about the ball sack. He hoped for a good turnout; he needed the money.
The first guests pulled into the white zone. Dervish greeted them, tore off claim checks, and reversed their cars up the incline of Austin Alley. They gathered by the podium in tuxedos and finery, in a show of gaiety, soaking up the sun. Dervish tried the front and side doors, rang the buzzers, and knocked loudly. Nobody indoors? Slowly the alley was filling up with cars and the sidewalk with pensioners, many using walking canes for ease of ambulation.
The solo valet grew worried. He encouraged the hungry to step inside the Wayo Sushi Restaurant adjacent to Coconut Grove, and the thirsty he sent across Van Ness to Route 101, a dive bar of raucous repute. The first wave of senior citizens reluctantly shuffled into both joints. He reversed protocol for the next rush of cars; he took payment in advance, $8 per car, a valet's primal instinct ignited.
Much fatigued, he parked the last car at the top of the hill; the alley was full, as were Wayo and the bar Route 101. Descending the block in solar glare, it dawned completely. He stuck his head inside the elongated, tarp torn, homeless encampment, ten yards up from Coco G's side entrance. Squatting on cardboard, two of the three haggard residents, Teresa and Bird, were squeezing syringes, pressing into vein, brown pleasure bound for brain.
"Anyone from the Grove show up today?"
Arco, the only one of the three able to speak at that moment, confirmed his fears, "It went under. We got cognac and champagne last night. They're all gone. Jean-Marc's in Paris." He offered Dervish a slug of Courvoisier.
Dervish jarred his head out of the hobo-hole and stumbled from a dread prod. A white limousine pulled up on Van Ness. The joyous bride in jade was greeted and escorted out by the best man. Alongside the limo, a hundred yards below the valet, old men with canes came around the corner. Tap... tap...
Dervish choked for an explanation... tap... tap... the retired bridegroom lead his men uphill.
The closure of the Coconut Grove had fallen squarely on the valet's scapegoat shoulders. Tap... tap...
He hurled the last set of keys downhill into their irate path. Upward they came, in silent fury, aged anger boiling, no halt, march on... tap... tap. There were at least a dozen of them, steel-tipped canes striking concrete... tap... tap...
The retired bride and groom had dropped 20 G for a reception in a dive bar. The chess champion lost his Twin Peaks palace. Half the staff at the Coco G slammed hard into the chain link fence, last seen in rehab or jail. Hobosapiens were high on cognac and smack.
When the jazz stops, the valet in blue must run, run for his life...
The seething mob's ten yards away,
what reason he to stay?
with wallet ball youth fled uphill,
what a bitter bridal pill.